Çubukçu: Response to the reviews

This post is part of a symposium on Ayça Çubukçu’s book For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

I would like thank the remarkable scholars gathered in this book symposium from the fields of anthropology, history, international law, international relations, and English literature, who have responded in challenging ways to my book, For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, and to what the book describes, analyses, questions, and proposes. If, as Lori Allen suggests, the book “troubles both academic genres and political assumptions,” so do the valuable reflections collected in this symposium. They respond to the praxis of the World Tribunal on Iraq—its foundations, motivations, implications, limitations, provocations—as well as (and at times more than) my analysis of that praxis and its legal and political context. While the book, in Gary Wilder’s words, “engages deeply with the challenge of solidarity politics and anti-imperial internationalism under current geopolitical conditions,” the scholars in this symposium partake in this engagement by posing difficult questions of their own, and at times answers, about the proper means, ethics, and politics of enacting anti-imperialism and internationalist solidarity today. I am grateful for the intellectual and political comradery they have offered in this way.

Tor Krever responds to the book by contrasting the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) with its historical inspiration and antecedent, the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam, convened by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre in the late 1960s. He perceptively observes that whereas the Russell Tribunal “was the creation of a handful of prominent intellectuals,” the WTI was “an altogether different creature, the product, as Ayça Çubukçu shows in For the Love of Humanity, of a global network of anti-war activists with a diverse range of political priorities and commitments.” I would like to begin with this diversity, and what appears to be Krever’s frustration, if I can characterize it this way, with it.

Krever finds the book “especially valuable in drawing out a tension at the heart of the endeavour,” the tension between—what I conceptualize as—legalist and political imaginaries that animate rival visions of global peace and justice. It is against the “legalist perspective” and commitments of some WTI activists that Krever directs his critical energies. He asserts that their insistence on formal legality is “somewhat perplexing, their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy and apolitical nature of international law quaint if not naïve, not least in light of international law’s own complicity in the very invasion and occupation at issue. Would not the tribunal simply valorise international law, encouraging faith in an institution that has historically served to legitimate oppression and justify violence?”

Indeed, it was with such concerns that other WTI organizers with a “political perspective” contested the legalist one, resulting in sophisticated, creative, and passionate debates and strategic compromises about the form, the content, and the language the WTI would assume. Krever finds that in the book, I am “unfailingly balanced” in my descriptions of these debates, “at times frustratingly so.” Why frustratingly? As an ethnographer—if not as an activist making partisan interventions in unfolding discussions—I took my task to be the fair documentation of these symptomatic debates that crystalized, at the turn of the twenty-first century, conflicting visions of international law within the global antiwar movement and the role this law could or could not play in delivering “global peace and justice.” But ultimately, as an analysis of these debates in conversation with critical legal and political theory, the book asks its readers, as Allen indicates, “to pause and consider how progressive the cosmopolitan promotion of a ‘global rule of law’ really is.” More specifically, along with the WTI activists who did so, it invites readers (in Allen’s words) “to struggle with the question of whether international law is necessarily a tool of imperialism or if it can be a means of resistance to it.”

While I offer my response to this question in the last chapter of the book, arguing that “law’s empire” is not an alternative to, but an articulation of, “empire’s law,” it would be incorrect to claim that WTI activists ever reached consensus over this question. Nevertheless, it is perplexing that Krever concludes his reflections with the claim that in my account of the WTI, “imperialism is mentioned in passing, capitalism not at all,” which reflects he says, “perhaps less Çubukçu’s disinterest than the political confusion of a diverse network of activists. For all Sartre’s preoccupation with legality, he was at least clearsighted about the engine behind the U.S. war machine: ‘capitalist imperialism.’” As difficult or easy as Sartre, the vanguard of the Russell Tribunal, may have found it to agree with himself (or Russell) when attempting to square his invocation of law and legality with an analysis based on capitalist imperialism, the collective negotiation of that conundrum (and more) by the decentralized, horizontal network of WTI organizers around the world was not the result of the “political confusion” of a diverse group of activists but the product, as I demonstrate in the book, of their political determination to work through that diversity.

That brings me to Stephen Hopgood’s principal response to the book, which objects to the WTI’s horizontal, network form of organization and its consensus model of decision-making. Hopgood charges WTI activists with the failure to create a “sovereign” over themselves, an executive power with the capacity to make executive decisions over the whole. Stipulating into the future, he finds that “the WTI might, of course, raise awareness for the next struggle, and the one after that, radicalizing a new generation of anti-war and anti-imperialist activists. But won’t they too, at some point, need to turn their network into a party, or an organized movement?” The answer is, we cannot know if future generations will decide to enact politics through the party form. What we do know is that the WTI did not lack organization—rather, it was an experiment with a different type of organization that anticipated, as Anthony Alessandrini observes, more recent movements such as “Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Gezi Rebellion and the revolutions and popular uprisings lumped into the category of the ‘Arab Spring’ and any number of other youth-led movements around the world.”

Hopgood refers to the intermezzo of my book, “Can the Network Speak?” as a “testament to the political weakness of network forms of action based on disparate interests and positions.” While I certainly explore weaknesses of the network form and consensus model of decision-making in the praxis of the WTI, that is not all I do in the book. I highlight as well the advantages and potentials of this particular form of organization, which was perhaps the major point of consensus—even pride—among WTI organizers, even when they found it “excruciating” in practice. But also, in the intermezzo and more, I demonstrate how political disagreements among WTI activists were displaced onto organizational disputes, especially when affective bonds among them, most importantly trust, were in fact hurt.

Apart from problems of affect, there are major questions of effect and effectiveness that Hopgood and Allen raise in response to the praxis of the WTI. While Allen rightly interrogates “the impulse to investigate” enacted by the WTI and various fact-finding missions of the international community, poignantly asking “what, really, are the effects of facts,” she concludes her reflections with the invitation for another book on the WTI “to help us understand the effects of the Tribunal’s incredible experiment, and trace where their facts did or did not lead them and the rest of the world.” Hopgood, too, questions the effectiveness of the WTI, placing on tribunal activists the demand for “discernible and tangible political impact” that could meet “expectations that something like the WTI might actually change any facts in the world.”

A proper response to both scholars would require a thorough engagement with the problem of effecting political change in the face of imperial, capitalist, and ostensibly democratic war machines, and of doing so as a matter of fact. I cannot undertake that task here. Instead, allow me to underline that while they were not naïve about the “discernible and tangible political impact” they could have in the world, ambitions of WTI activists went well beyond the collection of facts about the occupation of Iraq. The WTI had “utopian” elements, other measures of success and effectiveness. Both Wilder and Alessandrini recognize and cherish this fact in their reflections on the book, contrary to Hopgood’s pragmatic assertations, for one, that the essence of politics is the art of the possible. After all, who can possibly, effectively, presently end the state of impunity enjoyed by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies with respect to the occupation of Iraq? Yet this “impossible” task was one that WTI activists attempted while proleptically addressing themselves to the future. And that was, as Alessandrini finds, “an important lesson in political temporality.”

Wilder further summons that the WTI acted “as a global political subject for a planetary politics whose framework, language, and institutional arrangements do not yet exist (and perhaps can never fully exist).” While this may be true, when enacting its planetary politics of anti-imperialism and internationalist solidarity in the present, the WTI found(ed) itself speaking through existing languages of liberal cosmopolitanism in a context where supporters of the war on Iraq mobilized elements of this cosmopolitanism—including arguments for global responsibility and care, international law, and human rights everywhere—when making their case for the “liberation” of Iraq by the United States and its allies. This predicament, this consequential coincidence raises the problem of distinguishing “anti-imperial internationalism from cosmopolitan imperialism” (in Wilder’s phrasing), which I address throughout the book.

But the book’s “overriding concern” is not challenging liberal cosmopolitanism, human rights, and humanitarian intervention as Wilder suggests. As Allen recognizes, the analysis I advance “moves beyond the critique of powerful governments to consider when anyone, like the cosmopolitan citizens of the World Tribunal, can act on behalf of people they saw being wronged.” The issue here is, in Allen’s précis, the imperial pitfalls “of doing good for others ‘in the name of humanity’ generally, by anyone,” including by NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (whose approach to the war I critique in the book) and by WTI activists—even when the latter did not, as Wilder correctly observes, “simply act in the name of humanity,” or for that matter, in the name of the Iraqi people as such. WTI activists were aware that both “humanity” and “the Iraqi people” were divided, to put it starkly, into pro-war and anti-war camps (and more).

In this situation, tribunal activists spoke as avowed partisans of the global anti-war movement, and yet avoided grappling thoroughly with what Allen identifies as “the perhaps most difficult question of what happens when the targets of our solidarity effort have a different political opinion.” As I discuss in the book, at bare minimum, WTI activists did not think carefully enough about the tribunal’s legitimacy in the eyes of those from Iraq, even when they cited “the Iraqi resistance” against the occupation as a “source” of the WTI’s own legitimacy. Further, as Alessandrini laments, there was little room in the proceedings of the tribunal—at least at its culminating session in Istanbul—to criticize what was lumped together as “the Iraqi resistance,” including its Baathist elements, which some (certainly not all) WTI activists supported. For these tribunal activists, Alessandrini concludes, “anti-interventionism marked the limits of their political imagination, and thus of their limited form of solidarity,” identifying this situation as “the most significant failure of the WTI network, one from which we might learn much today. Aiming itself against Western intervention, it missed the chance to become a movement of true international solidarity.”

And what could be the principles of this “true international solidarity” or what Wilder calls “a new left internationalism,” and Allen “egalitarian solidarity”—how could it address “our collective failure to move from a univocal politics of anti-interventionism to a fully internationalist vision of solidarity,” in Alessandrini’s words? Thinking through this question, Alessandrini cites an article of mine which argues that “what resides in the difficulty of distinguishing acts of transnational solidarity from acts of foreign intervention are the mutable borders of the political communities we imagine, the importance we attach to their ‘autonomy,’ and who we take to be the proper subject of politics within those borders. Without those borders, as one might wish, neither the distinction between ‘national’ and ‘foreigner,’ nor the distinction between ‘solidarity’ and ‘intervention’ would make much sense.”

While observing how the distinction between transnational solidarity and foreign intervention “carries within itself an implicit recognition of national sovereignty,” Alessandrini appears more prepared to let go of “national sovereignty” (or self-determination, or what I prefer to think of as “autonomy”) than many WTI activists were at the time, including myself, in imagining the demands of a “fully internationalist vision of solidarity” that was, at once, anti-imperialist. In principle, to my mind at least, respect for the autonomy of the multitude called “the people of Iraq” did not demand supporting Saddam Hussein or all actions of “the Iraqi resistance.” But it did require thinking alongside people who did and did not do so, while recognizing Iraqis, in all their diversity, to be the proper subject of politics within their country—and even beyond, in one World Tribunal on Iraq. However, had we, as WTI activists, been able “to imagine the WTI itself as a non-violent intervention in the form of international solidarity,” as Alessandrini invites us to do, perhaps then we might have been in a better position to take responsibility for that intervention and its risks—including imperial and paternalist pitfalls—which I attempted to explore in the book.

In Allen’s perceptive words, WTI activists “grappled with rethinking the meaning of sovereignty, intervention, and rights beyond a state-centric, top-down framework of political action.” This was no easy task, certainly not one for the faint-hearted. As WTI activists attempted to think beyond these liberal political forms, they faced myriad difficulties and dilemmas, many of which they could not resolve. However, I hope with Wilder that For the Love of Humanity offers, along with the World Tribunal on Iraq’s experimental praxis, “the remarkable example of how such a heterogenous and international network of groups actually managed to work across so many incommensurable differences to create such a powerful and beautiful medium through which to intervene directly and performatively on the stage of world politics.” When all is said and done, there are more or less beautiful ways to lose.

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